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The Associated Press

American Spanish? U.S. Network Coaches Performers From Latin America To Speak With "Neutral" Accents


3 February 2005
Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

NEW YORK (AP) - Actor Michel Brown has won over a growing number of telenovela viewers in the United States with his portrayal of the tenderhearted renegade Pablo, a leading role on a prime-time soap opera on the Telemundo network.

While fan clubs pay tribute to his blue eyes and teen-idol looks, network executives praise a more subtle aspect of Brown's appeal: an even-paced Spanish delivery, carefully coached to conceal the singsong cadence that marked him as a native Argentine.

"I had to learn to shorten my vowels and keep my voice from going up and down," Brown said in an interview from Colombia, where the telenovela "Te Voy a Ensenar a Querer," or "Learning to Love," is filmed. "They wanted a universal, completely plain Spanish."

On-set dialogue coaches aim to have all performers speaking with the same flattened accent before long. The network, which implemented the policy 18 months ago, wants to eliminate any trace of off-putting idiosyncrasies for a Latino audience in the United States with as many accents as there are Spanish-speaking countries.

"We're trying to be television neutral -- I am fanatical about it personally," said Telemundo President James McNamara, who likened the campaign to making it easier for an American to watch a movie from Scotland. "I want to make sure that when we put effort into our production, we don't create obstacles."

The challenge, he said, is to bring out the same even patter among all actors, whether they speak off-camera with clipped South American accents or more languid Caribbean varieties.

"It doesn't matter if you're in Peru, Venezuela, or Mexico, they pronounce vowels the same way. It's the way you put words together, the speed, and the rhythm that tend to vary," said McNamara, who was born and raised in Panama. "All that you see in television is that there is a speed of diction that is neutral."

The neutral Spanish has no real-world equivalent, though observers say it resembles a combination of highbrow accents from Mexico and Cuba, two countries with large immigrant populations in the United States. The lead dialogue coach, actress Adriana Barraza, is a native of Mexico.

At stake are ratings for the enormous Spanish-language audience in the United States, one of the largest outside Mexico. The 40 million U.S. Hispanics, 13.5 percent of the country's population, are coveted by advertisers as the world's wealthiest Spanish speakers.

The language policy plays into a strategy by the No. 2 network to gain on Univision Communications Inc., which has long dominated U.S. Spanish-language television by importing content from Mexican colossus Televisa and other foreign networks. Where Telemundo once dubbed novelas from Brazil into Spanish, it now produces many of its own with "aspirational" themes meant to appeal to the U.S. Hispanic audience, McNamara said.

Telemundo attributes some recent success to the makeover. While Univision still dominates the Hispanic television market, Miami-based Telemundo, backed by its parent network, NBC, has gained ratings in small increments over the last year.

One viewer, Luis Pichardo, said he and his family preferred Telemundo, even though some of its programs lack big-budget polish. While neither network offers the lilting tones of his native Dominican Republic, he said the Mexican accents on Univision can become tiresome.

"When it's all Mexican, I don't like it, and my kids don't always understand it," said Pichardo, 35, a clothing store owner in New York.

The emergence of neutral Spanish on U.S. airwaves suggests to some a moment of arrival for U.S. Hispanics -- the rise of a national ethnic identity no longer tied to individual countries of origin.

"It is a widespread trend that is quite significant because it says much about how Latinos in the U.S. are consolidating their own identity," said Ilan Stavans, a professor of Spanish at Amherst College in Massachusetts. "Television is a lightning rod for other aspects of the pan-Latino individual."

The universal Spanish, which dilutes recognizable elements of national accents, also involves sacrifices. Words that vary in meaning from one region to another are often dropped, and some actors even have to change their sentence structure -- no small imposition for actors who might see their country's Spanish as the purest form.

But Brown, for one, said he doesn't take it personally.

"The culture and language, every actor has that. It's something you carry inside," the 28-year-old Argentine said in an interview conducted in Spanish. The rewards, he added, are worth the effort.

"You can have a Cuban actor and an Argentine playing brothers, set in any location. It lets you pull off something marvelous."

Telemundo is hardly alone in pushing a neutral accent. Spanish spoken by television news anchors -- both here and in parts of Latin America -- has been evolving similar to the plain English spoken by U.S. national news anchors such as Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw.

According to telenovela scholar Tomas Lopez-Pumarejo, the network's policy reflects a standardization that emerged over the last 15 years at journalism and communication schools, particularly in Puerto Rico and Mexico. "There is more or less a coherent way of speaking Spanish, a consensus on a way people should talk," said Lopez-Pumarejo, a professor at Brooklyn College.

Many cultural critics, however, argue that more is lost than gained by the neutral Spanish. Some say it threatens cultural diversity by reducing the array of Spanish voices on the air.

Most Telemundo and Univision programs are made abroad with Latin American actors, and New York University professor Arlene Davila said the neutral accent represents a "reverse cultural imperialism" by upholding a linguistic ideal from outside the United States, while making no effort to capture the way the language is spoken inside the country.

"U.S. Hispanics are a second-tier audience twice over, both among the major U.S. networks and the Spanish networks, which go back to Latin America," said Davila, author of the book "Latinos, Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People."

Others, however, say a baseline Spanish is thoroughly American.

Jorge Ramos, a news anchor for Univision, said he learned early in his U.S. career to neutralize his Mexican accent so he could appeal to an audience of immigrants from different regions. But Ramos -- perhaps the best-known Spanish-language journalist in the country -- said no amount of practice will ever fully conceal his origins.

"As hard as I try, there is always a sentence, a word, that would immediately let them know I'm Mexican," he said.

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